Brothers' Keepers

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JANUARY 6, 1946

Brothers' Keepers

 

A review of Focus, by Arthur Miller.

Focus begins, startlingly enough, with the hero, a Mr. Newman, roused from an enigmatic dream of a deserted carnival by screams in the street. Rushing to the window he sees a woman struggling with a drunken assailant. They sway together. The man cuffs her and she cries, “Police!” No one goes out to her. Mr. Newman creeps back to bed and his neighbors presumably do likewise. Because the woman’s look and accent are foreign, Mr. Newman believes her to be a street-walker. To him she is one of the millions of alien souls in the city who take their chances and come out as well as they can. What they do and what is done to them is no business of his. He keeps clear of their disordered, strange lives. The cries end, and Mr. Newman listens to milder night noises until he drops offto sleep.

But it is said to us that we are our brothers’ keepers and that each one is responsible for all, and soon Mr. Newman is to learn that it is not permitted to keep clear. He is a dull sort of man, Mr. Newman, finicking and spinsterish. He waters his lawn nightly in hot weather, and diligently clears the litter from his sidewalks m the morning; every Sunday he polishes his car. He is not all tame, however. He has hidden springs of life. He responds to the manly companionship of his neighbor Fred, a Christian Fronter, to the brutal, brief poems of obscenity and hate chalked on the subway pillars, and to soft arms, deep bosoms and feminine odors. He is, and has beenfor many years, inthe personnel division of a great corporation where he is distinguished for his ability to detect and get rid of Jewish—and therefore undesirable—applicants. On his block, he gives support to a movement to boycott Mr. Finkelstein, owner of a corner newsstand. Of this he is a little ashamed, but not consciously, and his shame is outweighed by the satisfaction of acting together with his neighbors.

A small change in Mr. Newman’s appearance causes a revolution in his life. He needs glasses. That is symbolically appropriate. His eyes were open and he saw not. But now his superior in the office orders him to buy glasses, and Mr. Newman is forced to see. Without glasses he looks tolerably like a Gentile; with them he looks like a Jew, and in consequence people begin to treat him as though he were one. He is removed from the front office, where his appearance isconsidered undesirable by the firm, and is assigned to a remote corner to do clerical work. Furious at this injustice, he quits. And then he is jobless for a long while. He is snarled and jeered at in public places, put off with evasions in offices where he applies for work, and on his block soon finds himself in Mr. Finkelstein’s predicament. He tries to escape it, but fails; the gift of glasses is not to be refused; and eventually he accepts his identification as a Jew as the course of wisdom and justice and attains to the dignity of a brother’s keeper.

Thus he is transformed, and as his transformation is a desirable one, it would be splendid to believe it. But the whole thing is thrust on him. He is too docile; he does not resist enough for a man whose specialty is turning away Jews and who thrills to the messages of hate scrawled in the subway. He would be far more apt to carry his baptismal certificate around to the neighbors as proof that he was not a Jew than to become suddenly resolute before the mad face of injustice. No, Mr. Newman’s heroism has been clipped to his lapel like a delegate’s badge at a liberal convention.

If only he had had more substance to begin with. But he is so bare—hardly conscious. He is put before us realistically as an average lower-middle-class individual, cut to a pattern made familiar by writers like Ring Lardner and James T. Farrell. Anxiety and dread press upon him and move him. The dream of the deserted carnival is a metaphor of the dumb, blank, unpeopled, fearful circuit of his daily existence. Realistically, such a person is not very likely to discover the brotherhood of man. He is not conscious enough. He may do the moral thing, but spontaneously, never analytically.

But Mr. Newman is something besides the lower-middleclass individual. He is also Man—and a citizen, the sovereign of the democratic state. Since the war a great many attempts have been made, from motives of patriotism and loyalty to democratic ideals, to dignify this democratic sovereign. Perhaps he has been misinterpreted and misunderstood and wronged. But Mr. Miller has not remedied the wrong.

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